Duke, Doris

An inheritor of a tremendous estate, Duke was an heiress and philanthropist of unparalleled status. Duke donated millions in controversial and progressive ways, including funds to support and educate southern black students, donations to the Birth Control League and also AIDS research.

Biographical Highlights

The only child of James “Buck” Buchanan Duke, Doris Duke was called the “Million Dollar Baby” and the “Richest Girl in the World” almost from the day of her birth on November 22, 1912 (Schwarz 1997). Buck Duke’s enormous wealth included the assets of the family tobacco company, the largest in the United States; ownership of the Carolina power companies; as well as a variety of diverse real estate holdings. At the time of Buck’s death, Doris inherited an estate worth more than $80 million dollars, with an additional Doris Duke Trust of $100 million being designated to come to her on selected future birthdays (Duke and Thomas 1996). Careful investing would further multiply this wealth and thus Doris would always have the resources to live an exceptionally extravagant life and she often did so.

Her riches made Doris Duke an heiress of unparalleled status, and proved a force that would drastically shape her life in both positive and negative ways. While Doris would never want for any material items, this wealth would bring a constant stream of threats and fears of kidnapping during her childhood; would make Doris a constant target for self-serving individuals trying to gain access to her wealth; would often lead Doris to isolate herself from others; and brought further media scrutiny to her often already controversial lifestyle choices. However, despite these excesses, Doris also proved to be a substantial and often progressive philanthropist. Doris founded her first foundation, Independent Aid, at the age of 21 (Schwarz 1997). Through this and the many subsequent organizations she formed, her giving was far reaching in scope. Her philanthropic interests centered on the arts (including specific interests in jazz music, Islamic/Southeast Asian art and jewelry), the environment (specifically wildlife preservation and orchid and other hybrid plant cultivation), medical research including various clinical research programs, child abuse prevention, and historic preservation. Doris created foundations and provided substantial outright gifts to nonprofit organizations already supporting these causes. During her lifetime it is estimated that Doris Duke gave away $400 million in current dollars to these and other causes (Duke and Thomas 1996; Schwarz 1997). In addition, the majority of her assets and estate became charitable gifts following her death on October 28th, 1993. Doris’ net worth at that time was measured in the billions, a large portion of which was given to endow the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, an organization that continues to support the many interests of Doris Duke. As of December 31, 2003 the organization held assets in excess of more than $1.5 billion (Doris Duke Charitable Foundation).

Historic Roots

Doris Duke’s life was one of dichotomies. She was described as both an excessively extravagant spender as well as an educated and fiscally responsible individual throughout her life (Schwarz 1997).  While she spent millions on art, jewelry, lavish trips, and her often ill-fated relationships, Doris also gave substantial funds to charity during her lifetime. Her vast wealth placed Doris in a role of both privilege and isolation even from a young age. Buck Duke loved his daughter fiercely and thus his concern for Doris led to near obsessive lengths to protect her. From bodyguards to routine disinfections of her quarters to stave off disease, Buck spared no expense in shielding Doris. He taught her at a young age that her wealth would require that she “trust no one.” As Doris was the heiress to an almost unbelievable fortune, he counseled her that many, men especially, will go to lengths to try to win both her affection and her assets. Buck also made it clear that he did not even trust Doris’ mother. Nanoline Duke resented Doris from the day of her birth. Nanoline had hoped that without any of his own children, Buck would leave his fortune to her son from a previous relationship, Walker. However, once Doris arrived it was clear that Buck had no intention of doing this.  Thus, the childhood of Doris Duke is hard to comprehend; she was surrounded by enormous wealth, yet raised in a home of both suffocating love and resentment (Mansfield 1992; Schwarz 1997).

Following Buck’s death in 1925 Doris was forced to sue her mother in court for her inheritance and the properties that Buck had left to her. This fight brought Doris into the stewardship of her fortune at a very young age. By her late teens and early twenties Doris was frequently traveling on behalf of her family’s interests and the various trusts established in Buck’s will. In addition she formed her own first foundation at 21, Independent Aid Incorporated, though for many years the bulk of Doris’ giving would be handled through the Doris Duke Trust. Her travels took her around the world and exposed her to cultures and experiences that profoundly shaped the philanthropic interests she would later pursue. Doris met and married her first husband, James Cromwell during this time, and while the relationship would end in disharmony and litigation, her travels with Jimmy specifically ignited Doris’ later interests in spiritual religions as well as Islamic and Southeast Asian art (Mansfield 1992; Schwarz 1997).  During their marriage she also built the beautiful Islamic architecture inspired estate, Shangri La in Hawaii. This home overlooking Diamondhead would be her winter home for many years and would later become the center of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art displaying her impressive collection of Islamic artifacts. The marriage to Cromwell would end in 1943, though not before a rumored abortion in 1939, and more importantly the loss of a daughter, Arden, shortly after birth in 1940. Though many argue that Doris did not want this child, and that she had even tried to lose the baby intentionally, her lost daughter Arden became a point that would haunt Doris the rest of her life (Schwarz 1997).

Following divorce from Jimmy, Doris’ jet-setting ways resumed with a variety of illustrious affairs and positions, including a stint during World War II volunteering for the Office of Strategic Services, which would later become the CIA.  A similar pattern of ill-fated relationships would continue through the rest of her life. She would have other short-lived and often tumultuous marriages and relationships that most frequently ended in litigation and the loss of millions of dollars. As her father had warned, there were many who came into her life that were more than willing to avail themselves with a portion of her wealth. In fact, questions surrounding her death in 1993 include allegations that her butler and physicians had hastened her demise as their greed for her wealth skewed their judgment and concern for Doris (Schwarz 1997). Yet despite these personal disappointments and betrayals, none of these soured relationships seemed to dampen Doris’ spirit for philanthropy. Doris continued to fund a variety of organizations throughout her lifetime and more importantly to make plans to pass on her enormous wealth to the public and various charities. In 1964, Doris opened the gardens and her elaborate greenhouses at Duke Farms to the public in Hillsborough, New Jersey. In 1968, Doris founded the Newport Restoration Foundation to rejuvenate the many colonial homes in the town surrounding her family’s Rough Point Estate (Doris Duke Charitable Foundation).

Though it is estimated that Doris gave away more than $400 million in current dollars during her lifetime, it is truly the final will and bequests of Doris Duke that most clearly illustrate the enormity of her philanthropic giving. While it is argued that millions of her fortune was lost to greed through a variety of codicils made to her will during her final weeks, it remains that Doris Duke was worth billions at the time of her death on October 28, 1993. More notably the majority of this wealth was passed directly to the public through the opening of her various estates, the sharing of her vast art collections, and the establishment of a variety of foundations in the areas of philanthropy to which Doris was most dedicated.


While Doris often made headlines for her controversial personal life, she was also a very shy person who did not seek fame for the money she gave to various charities.  Doris Duke was instead a free-spirited person and a philanthropist willing to give in controversial and progressive ways.  In fact, it is this legacy that is probably her most notable contribution to the philanthropic community. Doris gave generously to the deserving regardless of race or gender, yet also often in ways that helped foster additional philanthropy and self-investment on the part of recipients. Building from her grandfather and father’s giving legacy that had required broad access to the educational institutions they supported; Doris followed a similar pattern (Duke and Thomas 1996; Schwarz 1997). Thus for example, Duke money not only helped to educate and support southern black students during a time when their opportunities were still largely limited by their race, but it also supplied many southern black churches with organs, so that their congregations could also enjoy her love of music. Doris also gave to a variety of health issues, including some potentially controversial such as the Birth Control League as early as the mid–1930’s and later through her foundation’s funding of AIDS and other related research. Finally, it is important to note that beyond the enormous sums of known giving attributed to Doris Duke, an additional unknown portion of Doris Duke’s wealth may have been given anonymously to charity during her lifetime (Mansfield 1992).

Ties to Philanthropic Sector

Though Doris Duke contributed throughout her lifetime, it is the collection of foundations established and/or endowed through her estate that contributes most notably to the philanthropic sector.  The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has assets in excess of $1.5 billion, and it is responsible for the oversight of numerous separate trusts, grant programs and operating foundations. Established in 1996 following the settlement of Doris Duke’s estate, the Foundation seeks to enhance society through its various grant, educational and resources provisions. From 1997 through the end of 2003, the Foundation’s programs have awarded more than $343 million in grants to American nonprofit organizations; including more than $95 million in the area of the environment, $119 million in the arts, $17 million for child abuse prevention, and more than $109 million dollars for medical research (Doris Duke Charitable Foundation).
In addition to the grant programs offered, the Foundation also provides access to various properties in the Duke Estate.  As a result, included in the Foundation are three operating organizations to oversee the properties of Duke Farms in Hillsborough, New Jersey including the impressive greenhouses that Doris had built to support her horticultural and orchid interests, her Shangri La estate in Hawaii which is now home to the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, and the Newport Restoration Foundation which continues its work restoring and preserving colonial architecture in Newport, Rhode Island with more than 80 homes restored to date.

Key Related Ideas

Islamic Art: Islamic art refers specifically to artifacts involved in the practice and observance of the Islamic faith, as well as the works of artisans and others living in countries under Islamic rule or influence. The Doris Duke collection includes works from Islamic nations and neighboring countries such as Turkey, Morocco, India, Syria, and Iran.

Nation’s Wildlife Conservation System: This phrase is used by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to encompass the lands (and water systems) they seek to protect through their efforts. This targeted “system” specifically includes those lands and waterways that would need protection in order to sustain and protect the native wildlife of the given geographical region.

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Citizens of Newport, Rhode Island: While many have, and will, benefit from Doris Duke gifts, the people of Newport Rhode Island deserve special attention as benefactors. The work of the Newport Restoration Foundation begun by Doris Duke, and championed in the sixties by her friend Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, has come to provide a historical and tourism center for the community. By painstakingly restoring and then subsidizing the rental prices of homes in this community Doris preserved a living museum to colonial architecture, provided an enormous asset to her community, and shared with its citizens access to her art and jewelry collection displayed at Rough Point, her home in Newport.

  • James “Buck” Buchanan Duke (1856-1925): While not as philanthropic in nature as Washington, Buck Duke, played an important role in shaping Doris’ giving because of the close relationship the two shared and because of the ways in which he too carried on Washington’s legacy. Buck Duke included in his will several institutions of higher education, including Johnson C. Smith University, a black school in Charlotte. In addition, Buck wanted to increase the amount of hospital care that was available to the poor and blacks of the south, thus he included gifts to hospitals in exchange for their own investments. In a time when a day’s hospital stay cost approximately $3 for each day of indigent care provided, Buck Duke would provide an additional $1 of funding to the given hospital, thus expanding the amount of available indigent care.

  • Washington Duke (1820-1905): Doris’ grandfather first taught her philanthropy by his own example. Upon moving the family business to Durham, North Carolina, Washington gave an initial $50,000 gift to Trinity University (which would later be renamed Duke University following a substantial gift from Buck Duke). Washington’s gift was unique, however, as it required that the university not discriminate and specifically mandated that women be allowed to attend the university. Washington Duke had been raised in a poor laboring family and he never forgot these roots, giving assistance to other working poor individuals of all races.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Doris Duke Charitable Foundation:  The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is meant to improve the quality of people's lives through grants in the performing arts, wildlife conservation, medical research and the prevention of child abuse. The foundation manages three operating foundations, 1) the Duke Farms Foundation which opened to the public in 1964 and provides impressive public gardens and greenhouse displays on the Duke family farm in Somerville, New Jersey, 2) the Doris Duke Foundation for the Preservation of Endangered Wildlife which provides parkland upon which endangered animals can be sheltered and protected from extinction, and 3) the Doris Duke Foundation for the Preservation of New Jersey Farmland and Farm Animals which allows land for horticultural and agricultural research and for additional space for the protection of wildlife. http://www.ddcf.org/ 

  • Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art: Established in Doris Duke’s lavish Hawaiian estate, Shangri La, the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art is home to one of the largest collections of Islamic Art and furnishings in the United States. This Islamic-style home was built between 1936-1939 and includes architecture and art elements from Iran, Morocco, Turkey, and India. https://hawaiimuseums.org/frame_islandtxall.htm  

  • Newport Restoration Foundation: Doris founded the organization in 1968 after being exposed to the community through one of her family homes, Rough Point. Doris’ substantial investments allowed for the preservation and comprehensive restoration of more than 80 homes, as well as providing the necessary funding for a self-sustaining endowment. Today the NRF is responsible for restoring the nation’s most complete concentration of original colonial era buildings in the Newport areas of Colonial Point and Historic Hill. Doris’ former home Rough Point also provides the area with a substantial art and jewelry collection. https://www.newportrestoration.org/

  • Wildlife Trust: An organization similar in focus to that of the Foundation, Wildlife Trust efforts focus on applied wildlife science, educational training, and conservation medicine linking human-induced environmental change and ecological health to the emergence of human disease such as AIDS and Lyme disease. The organization also works to save animals from extinction, to rehabilitate environmental areas impacted adversely by human actions, and to link local scientists into resource networks where support can then enhance their individual efforts on behalf of the environment and wildlife.  https://www.ecohealthalliance.org/

Related Web Sites

Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, http://www.ddcf.org, provides wide variety of resources for those interested in these philanthropic areas. Additional organization and Internet resources are provided on the site, as are publication links that may be of use to individuals exploring the efforts of the Foundation or seeking similarly focused charities. Initiatives that have recently received funding from the Foundation are also highlighted, as are the qualifications for nonprofits interested in pursuing other funding opportunities.

Go Newport, www.gonewport.com, provides links to various sites related to the Duke family and their estates in New England. Resources related to Rough Point and the Newport Restoration foundation. Additional resources are provided for those interested in planning trips to Newport and the surrounding area.

Redwood Library-Newport, Rhode Island, www.redwoodlibrary.org/, is the oldest lending, and continuous use, library in the United States. The library’s architecture follows classical style. This design would influence many subsequent public buildings in America after Thomas Jefferson and George Washington visited in 1790 and became vocal supporters of this structure model.

Shangri La Homepage, https://www.shangrilahawaii.org/, includes links to a virtual tour of the estate, a searchable index of the holdings of the collection, and various news and resources items.  In addition, the site overviews general art and environment preservation techniques and provides a selection of recommended readings and other resources relevant to Islamic Art and the Duke family.

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Accessed 27 October 27 2004. http://www.ddcf.org/

Duke, Pony and Jason Thomas. Too Rich: The Family Secrets of Doris Duke. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1996. ISBN: 0060172185.

Mansfield, Stephanie. The Richest Girl in the World. New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1992. ISBN: 039913672X.

Schwarz, Ted and Tom Rybak. Trust No One. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. ISBN: 1892323176.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.